"War Story doesn't have a chance." "He's overmatched against this level of competition." "His connections are crazy for thinking anything but minor honors would be within his grasp."
Owner Ron Paolucci of Loooch Racing Stables has heard such banter when his Northern Afleet gelding shows up in the big-race entries and, on the face of it, the critiques aren't baseless. In the nine times War Story has started in grade 1 races, he has never earned a placing. He's gone off at double-digit odds in all but one of those races, including three times when he went to post at 94-1 or higher.
It has been a low-hanging indulgence for pundits to make War Story a punchline but, to that end, Paolucci and his partners can claim the last laugh. Easy as it is to zero in on how the chestnut gelding has fallen short in deeper waters, Paolucci takes comfort in some other hard and fast statistics: There are worse things than putting one's faith in a graded stakes winner who has scratched and clawed his way to earnings of more than $1.5 million.
"I mean, I can't think of any owner in the world that wouldn't like to have a horse like War Story in his stable," said Paolucci, who owns the gelding along with Glenn Ellis and Imaginary Stables.
If one thinks Paolucci is brash now, they better brace themselves for how audacious he will be if his old warrior proves how not crazy the decision was to put War Story in the world's richest race for a second consecutive season.
Having run fifth in the inaugural edition of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) last January, War Story is set to make his 6-year-old debut in the now $16 million test Jan. 27 at Gulfstream Park. And while an upset victory over likely Horse of the Year Gun Runner and company would be a stunner, it's not off base to suggest War Story brings with him some of the most legitimate momentum he has generated in his 24-race career.
Since breaking his maiden first-time out at Churchill Downs Nov. 1, 2014, War Story has become one of the few constants in the ever-shifting landscape of Thoroughbred racing, showing up at dance after dance, year after year. After hitting the board in three straight prep races, he started in the 2015 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) where he finished 16th. Though he had won just one of his previous 12 starts heading into the 2016 Breeders' Cup World Championships, he was nonetheless entered in the Classic (G1), where he broke in the air and proceeded to finish eighth, besting just Win the Space—who was eased.
Sent off at odds of 49-1 in last year's Pegasus, War Story gave an admirable account of himself, finishing fifth —well ahead of two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome in that one's final career start. It was the start of the best year of racing War Story has produced to date. He ran third in the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic Stakes (G2) before knocking out his long-awaited first graded score in the Brooklyn Invitational Stakes (G2) by 2 1/2 lengths at Belmont Park in June.
War Story ended his 2017 campaign with three straight fourth-place finishes in grade 1 races, the last of which was a sneaky good effort in the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar where he finished ahead of champion Arrogate and was beaten just a half-length for third by multiple grade 1 winner and fellow Pegasus contender West Coast. If, as Paolucci claims, the Jorge Navarro trainee is better and happier coming into this edition of the Pegasus than he was a year ago, seeing War Story in the mix at the end might not be such a far-fetched scenario.
"He's much more controlled in his training, he'll kind of do kind of whatever you ask him to do," Paolucci said of War Story, whom he purchased privately after the gelding's first start. "We've really made it our job to try and keep him happy on a work-to-work, week-to-week basis. I think he's coming into the race unbelievably good.
"(Winning the Brooklyn) was unbelievable. It's like winning the Super Bowl if you're a football player. He handled that group and it showed that for sure he's a grade 2-type horse, and on his best day he can compete in the grade 1s. It was very rewarding as the guy who found him after his first start."
Shifting between a handful of trainers during his career before landing in Navarro's hands early last year, War Story has shown the heartiness to keep bringing an effort no matter his location. His 24 starts have come at 13 different tracks, with victories at five venues. If he can deliver an on-the-board run Saturday, he may have another new backdrop to adjust to, as Paolucci would love to get the hard-knocking runner on the plane for the $10 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) in March.
"Actually that was the race we were kind of pointing to, because it's a mile and a quarter with that long stretch, so that's kind of our optimal race for him," Paolucci said of a possible Dubai trip. "Of course, we'd love to win this race, but we feel like the mile and a quarter with the long stretch gives him the best opportunity to come running. Hopefully he runs well and gives a good account of himself and then he'll go to Dubai where there won't be a Gun Runner and, hopefully, won't be both Collected and West Coast."
War Story will need circumstances to break his way if he has any chance at a Pegasus upset, but he will have at least one partner of sorts in the starting gate in stablemate and grade 1 winner Sharp Azteca. Paolucci worked out a deal to run Ivan Rodriguez's Sharp Azteca—also trained by Navarro—in the shareholder spot Paolucci himself purchased, with War Story going in one of the three spots purchased by The Stronach Group.
"From a financial standpoint I felt like it was something I had to do to protect my money as much as I could, and put my partnership in the best position they could be in, by not having to put up anything and still running for a big paycheck," Paolucci explained.
In typical Paolucci fashion, he's putting more of his money where his mouth is regarding his chances. He says anyone who bets $10 to win on War Story via Xpressbet, TwinSpires, or live at Gulfstream and emails him a copy of the ticket will be entered in a drawing that will give away $100,000 total should either War Story or Sharp Azteca prevail.
"Gun Runner is an amazing horse. He's awesome. But I wouldn't trade Sharp Azteca for Gun Runner after watching (Sharp Azteca) work," the owner proclaimed. "And that's not taking anything away from Gun Runner, he's awesome."
You can call Paolucci nuts. You can say War Story will be lucky to be factor. He's heard all that before. What Paolucci has seen is War Story showing up time and again while quietly getting better in the process.
"He's a totally different horse now," Paolucci said.